April 17, 2013

Legends in their own backyard

For a number of Australian greats down the years, cricket has begun rather close to home

Some of the most enjoyable cricket you can ever play is in what we Down Under call Backyard Tests. Most celebrated Australian cricketers played these games growing up, in which a bunch of mates gather daily in summer to imitate their cricketing heroes.

These games are highly competitive affairs and often end in bruises and tears, and with parents having to adjudicate dodgy decisions and break up the odd bit of fisticuffs.

When Doug Walters was a boy, he and his brothers, Terry and Warren, made their own backyard pitch on their dairy-farming property in the NSW country town of Dungog. One day during the Christmas holidays when Doug and his younger brother Terry were on their way to the woods, Doug noticed how car and tractor wheels had flattened the anthills along the track. The boys made a close inspection of the ant beds and were amazed that the surface was rock hard. "Bet that soil would make a good cricket pitch," Doug laughed.

After lots of hard work carting the ant-bed soil home, they laid a new pitch in a specially prepared hole roughly 40 centimetres deep, six metres long and two metres wide. Directly behind this pitch was the backyard dunny. It was on that pitch of uneven bounce and exaggerated turn that Doug learnt to read length and to play the ball turning in from the off with the power and confidence he later showed in senior cricket.

The Backyard Test "teams" always included the champs of the day, such as Australia's Alan Davidson, Ray Lindwall, Richie Benaud, and England's Ken Barrington, Len Hutton, Jim Laker and John Edrich.

The Chappell Brothers - Ian, Greg and Trevor - played in the backyard with a ferocity that almost beggared belief. One hot December day, six-year-old Trevor winced and trudged off the wicket in the Chappells' North Glenelg backyard after copping a nasty blow to the left elbow, courtesy Ian's quicker ball. Fighting back tears and after his mum, Jeanne, attended to the wound, Trevor returned to the fray. His older brothers greeted Trevor's return to the wicket with a barrage of bouncers.

Champ, the family's pet Labrador, was a brilliant fieldsman and often caught the unwary player who dared hit the ball in the air. One day Greg smashed an on-drive and Champ latched on to it all right, but he had misjudged the speed of the ball, and for days he trotted about shaking his head, no doubt hearing the rattle of loose teeth.

During the "Tests", Jeanne often had to adjudicate, becoming a mediator between warring factions. Most youngsters use a soft ball in the backyard games; not so the Chappells. It was always a regular cricket ball, and the likelihood of getting a blow to the unguarded legs made them watch it closely.

There was always room for humour, but not so much for their dad, Martin, who had to appease the insurance company for all the claims relating to broken windows. Early one morning Greg clobbered an Ian Chappell full toss over the protective wire netting. The ball cleared the paling fence and shattered the neighbour's kitchen window. Jeanne and Martin were sitting at the kitchen table when 14-year-old Greg burst into the room.

"You'd better come quick, dad," he said. Martin followed Greg outside. Immediately he saw the damage and heard the angry shouts of their Italian neighbour. They ran next door, and there they stood, trying not to laugh at the sight of their irate neighbour, a conglomeration of bacon, eggs and tomatoes meandering down his pyjama pants.

Allan Border too bombarded the family's Mosman neighbours' houses with the odd smash hit. In fact, his mum and dad, Sheila and John Border, had a handyman friend on standby for emergency repairs.

One day Allan lofted a ball from his brother Brett straight through a neighbour's bathroom window. Not the elderly spinster who loved the sound of the children playing and didn't mind the odd breakage, this was another neighbour. Gingerly Allan climbed over the fence and peered through the broken window, to be confronted by a young woman having a shower. Allan always regarded that hoick to leg to be the best shot of his career.

Champ, the family's pet Labrador, was a brilliant fieldsman and often caught the unwary player who dared hit the ball in the air. One day Greg smashed an on-drive and Champ latched on to it, but he had misjudged the speed of the ball, and for days he trotted about shaking his head, no doubt hearing the rattle of loose teeth

Before the turn of the 20th century, Clarrie Grimmett played cricket with his neighbours, the Harris brothers, all of whom bowled legbreaks, in Roxburgh Street, Wellington, until the gas lamps came on to brighten the gloom and Constable Thirsk arrived to clear the urchins from his presence.

Ray Lindwall bowled in the street with his mates to illustrate to the great Bill O'Reilly, en route to his home after a day at the office, that the St George Club would do well to sign him up. And Neil Harvey played with his brothers in the cobbled lanes of Fitzroy.

Down the years thousands of Australian cricketers have played cricket in their backyards. They have included the likes of Kim and Glenn Hughes, Steve and Mark Waugh, Mike and David Hussey, and I am sure many emerging stars of today.

I was introduced to the concept of Backyard Tests in the 1950s, a time when my heroes Harvey, Davidson and Benaud prevailed Down Under. Whenever "Harvey" batted in the backyard, you had to assume a left-hander's stance, when "Davo" bowled it had to be left-handed, and you had to bowl legspin when "Benaud" came on.

It all began for me in the backyard in Chatswood, a Harvey hook from the Lane Cove River, but a move in 1955 brought the family Mallett to faraway Perth, so divorced by the tyranny of distance from Sydney on the eastern seaboard that it might as well as been the Moon. Youngsters learn to adjust to change, though, and adjust I did.

The Backyard Test came round the time Jim Laker took 19 for 90 on an Old Trafford dustbowl that might well have looked like the lunar surface. Laker's performance inspired me in those Backyard Tests. I bowled offies with a bald tennis ball and became something of a local bowling wizard to my opponents, David Cowlishaw, Evan Jones, Gavin McCoy and Don Moran.

Moran was a tall lad who was a little different to the rest. All but he turned up to Backyard Tests barefoot, wearing shots and a t-shirt. Moran was always immaculately dressed: creams, proper cricket boots, and he was always padded up, ready to bat.

We allowed him to bat first, and no amount of skill could prevent the swinging, bald tennis ball from eventually evading the bat. As soon as Moran was hit on the pad, a raucous appeal went up and five or six index fingers were immediately thrust skywards. Don Moran never did score many runs in our Backyard Test matches.

Ashley Mallett took 132 Tests wickets in 38 Tests for Australia. An author of over 25 books, he has written biographies of Clarrie Grimmett, Doug Walters, Jeff Thomson and Ian Chappell

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